Felt, not spoken, pleasures
We’re told that we should “love” our jobs, even if they don’t pay our bills. Love somehow makes up for the sting of low or absent pay, or so we’re told.
There’s a lot of recent work about how damaging this discourse can be, especially to the least privileged among us – all those who can’t rely on friends, family, or a trust fund to cover the bills left unpaid by love. While certainly helpful, researchers’ emphasis on “passion” discourse leaves workers’ felt passions and embodied experiences unanalyzed.
Now, what I find truly puzzling, especially from the perspective of Marxist sociology, is how people find something to love in capitalism at all. A pleasurable capitalism seems unfathomable – especially given our world’s rising inequality, heightened labor precarity, and environmental devastation – and yet, people often claim to find their work pleasurable and deeply meaningful or to even “love” their jobs.
So, how do workers come to be affectively attached to precarious work under capitalism and how do organizations elicit this experience in the service of exploitation? Based on 20 months of ethnographic participant observation and 84 interviews, I argue in my recently published article in Ethnography that “cognitive” or “informational” varieties of capitalism dominate workers at the level of aesthetics, modulating our felt sensations and accompanying affects via technology, producing innumerable daily moments of low-level excitement in the day-to-day routines of work.
Increasingly, many people labor in contexts intentionally designed to elicit low-level excitements. This includes our use of everything from communication tools such as Slack or Teams to more specialized enterprise software such as Asana which is intended to facilitate participatory management styles (e.g., Agile). Every email notification, dynamic displays of data, or real-time feedback from fellow employees calls our bodies to attention and managers direct that attention toward specific ends.
These excitements may be mundane, but they engage us sensually and, I argue, enchant labor processes, aesthetically enrolling workers in capitalist projects of capturing value from workers’ minds and bodies. Understanding these pleasures helps us understand challenges for labor mobilization and other forms of resistance in an increasingly vibrant, technologically dense world of precarious employment.
Taking the pleasures of precarity seriously
As an ethnographer, I try to understand how social processes unfold in real world contexts by taking up a role within the situation I want to understand – what we call participant observation. So, I went where I could see the relation between pleasure and precarity most clearly: the culture industries where “love” for work coexists alongside radical labor market uncertainty and low (or even absent) wages. I worked alongside office staff and recording engineers in a recording studio and took an unpaid internship at a YouTube management company to observe both expressive workers (i.e., music producers and social media “creators”) as well as people who perform routine office work in these “creative” culture industries.
Here, I’m focusing on the latter, most of whom earned $20000 – $38000 per year for 50-60 weekly hours of mundane, clerical tasks and data analysis work in support of musicians and onscreen talent. How do these people in some of the culture industries most tedious and underpaid jobs come to “love” their jobs?
Now, some folks might tell you that “love” for a job is simply “false” or “reified” consciousness, but I refuse to totally dismiss statements made by the vibrant, self-possessed individuals I’ve encountered in the field over the past 10 years. Rather than cynically dismiss them, I asked how these workers came to enjoy their labor process and find pleasure as they participated in their own exploitation. This challenged me to both take workers’ claims about their lives seriously while remaining critical of the conditions of the working day.
Attempting to walk this line between taking workers seriously and remaining critical, I compare routine workers in two different culture industries to trace two versions of a similar process of control over labor that I call aesthetic enrollment. In this process, workers become pleasurably absorbed in their tasks. They experience this absorption as as an absence. To highlight the materiality of this process, I use the term aesthetic experience rather than the more psychological “flow” because this process occurs vis-à-vis aesthetically engaging objects, often technologies. As I show in the article, aesthetic enrollment generates increased managerially desired effort, even in absence.
The aesthetics of managerial ideology
So, what sorts of interactions led to workers’ aesthetic enrollment in the culture industries’ routine jobs? Well, they often claimed that they most loved “being creative,” seemingly an echo of management’s claims to want “creative” workers. Now, creativity – a notoriously fraught term – can mean a lot of things and is often shot through with issues of class, race, gender, and their intersections. Creativity at work is no different with clearly classed meanings. Among managers, creativity usually referred to what I elsewhere call instrumentalized pragmatism while workers often meant something more akin to artistic creativity or generating new ideas and forms.
Performing routine tasks, workers seemed to be denied opportunities to “be creative,” yet workers often claimed to feel creative. Why? As an ethnographer in the extended case tradition, I began by attempting to extend my experience to meet those who I worked alongside in the field. I compared what they told me up against my experience of the situation. Of course, I also sifted through endless fieldnotes and pages upon pages of interview transcripts.
I came across a surprising pattern in both my experiences and those I observed: we felt most “creative” during moments when we didn’t really feel at work or when time and our surroundings seemed to disappear. This experience seemed anchored to specific interactions with objects – hence I insist on “aesthetic experience” rather than an asocial “flow” untethered to specific material contexts.
I insist on the term aesthetic experience because I found that workers’ descriptions of these productive absences mirrored the design of the objects. At work, the aesthetics of the technology shaped workers’ experience of their tasks. For example, workers’ described playful absences when working with multi-modal, gestural interfaces governed by a logic that workers found intelligible (e.g., music production equipment such as synthesizers, mixing desks, and outboard signal processing equipment). In contrast, workers used goal-oriented, travel metaphors when describing interfaces containing only query boxes and nested menus governed by a puzzling, black-boxed logic.
According to employees, work “did not feel” like work when interacting with these “beautiful” technologies (e.g., the Moog synthesizer or ProTools) or technologies that provided copious data (e.g., YouTube’s analytics and content management interface). Respectively, they claimed to “disappear” and to “worm-hole” or “deep-dive.” In moments without these technologies, workers claimed to remain “stuck” or “on the surface.”
Thus, workers’ interactions with various objects mediate participatory management styles – what I’ve elsewhere called managerial invitations to “be creative.” Often, management invited and made possible repeated interactions with objects that afforded workers an opportunity to pursue these absences, all the while encouraging workers to “be creative.”
Paying close attention to these interactions between humans and objects at work helps us understand how employees can both find pleasure or enjoyment in capitalism while also being exploited without resorting to claims about “false” consciousness. Workers feel “creative,” even if their jobs seem to prohibit anything resembling the sorts of artistic creativity that they so desire.
Now, you might think these examples overly specific to my fieldsites, but these experiences that I detail in th article echo the affectively engaging and, ultimately, productive absences found in numerous studies of work in “cognitive,” “creative,” or “information” economies. For example, losing one’s self in production processes—absent though productive—appears as one of the most desirable features of precarious, creative jobs in UK and US contexts. Likewise, European investment bankers get lost inside the “gestural faces” of their screens while software programmers experience technology as an emotional “trigger” for productivity.
Extending from my cases to theory, then, allows us to understand how cognitive capitalist labor processes dominate workers. In each example, objects’ designs prove to be crucial in enrolling workers in precarious employment. In processes of aesthetic enrollment, distinctive materialities and organizational goals mediate and direct workers’ subjective absences. Labor processes’ specific aesthetics (i.e., felt intensities upon the body vis-à-vis objects) support or mediate managerial ideologies and, in this way, capitalist organizations delegate to technical objects the relational work required to obscure exploitation. Thus, labor scholars and organizers need to consider workplace aesthetics including the design of technology to better understand the micro-mechanisms that facilitate capital’s domination of labor, eliciting effort at work and affective attachment to capitalism and other exploitative institutions.
Michael L. Siciliano is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Communication at Tulane University in the US and the author of Creative Control: The ambivalence of work in the culture industries published by Columbia University Press.
This article is adapted from Michael L. Siciliano, “Effort in Absence: Technologically mediated aesthetic experiences of the culture industries’ routine workers,” Ethnography (published online ahead of print September 14, 2022). https://doi.org/10.1177/146613812211245.
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